It’s the dead of winter, even in endless-summer California. Everything’s dormant. Gray. Cold and hazy. What better time to ponder the scary, the unthinkable–the existential threats to Apple.
Back in 1997, Apple was weeks or months away from bankruptcy, depending on who you ask. Of course, Steve Jobs came back and turned it around and instilled in the company a save-every-penny ethos that persists even as Apple has transformed into one of the most valuable and profitable companies in the world.
Given this mindset, it’s undoubtedly true that inside Apple, there are people thinking deep thoughts about the long-term future of Apple. With well over $100 billion in cash and enormous profits rolling in every quarter, Apple can afford to take the long view when it considers existential threats.
So why not perform that exercise ourselves? Apple’s riding high right now, but 25 years ago, it was at death’s door. Life comes at you fast. What could lay Apple low?
Scenario 1: The iPhone falters
Apple has nice businesses in the Mac and iPad, but the engine that drives the ship is the iPhone. If the Mac and iPad vanished tomorrow, Apple would be just fine. (The rest of us would be really unhappy, though!) But if iPhone sales begin to fade, that would be a killer.
Fortunately, this scenario seems extremely unlikely. The iPhone is Apple’s number-one priority, and if there were ever any signs of shakiness, the company would snap into action–even if that meant diverting attention from the Mac, the iPad, the Apple Watch, and projects involving AR headsets and future automobiles.
I have a really hard time imagining a world where the iPhone and Android don’t continue as the two dominant smartphone platforms for decades to come. And while fortunes might wax and wane among manufacturers on the Android side, the iPhone has the advantage of being the only product available that runs iOS. (That said, it’s hard to imagine that the two most successful smartphone makers of 2035 won’t be Apple and Samsung. They’re just that entrenched.)
Scenario 2: The government forces change
There’s an awful lot of talk about government regulation of Big Tech, and Apple’s App Store policies have been one target. We can argue if opening up the App Store to competition would be bad for Apple’s business or not amount to much of a change, and it’s definitely debatable if any government action would be big enough to make an appreciable impact on the business rather than just forcing Apple to make minimal changes around the edges.
The real existential threat here is that a powerful government somewhere crafts legislation or regulation that completely rewrites Apple’s business model, either splitting apart the company or causing changes that make the iPhone unappealing. I can envision some half-baked scenarios here, but none that I think are likely to happen.
And the truth is, I suspect Apple has war-gamed all these scenarios and come to the same conclusion. Clearly, the company is acting as if there’s no chance that its entire business model will be broken by legislation, so it’s decided to fight rather than negotiate. It’s frustrating to see Apple sow misinformation about the contributions the App Store made to the online distribution of software while pretending that it must charge developers for the administration of a safe and curated space full of scam apps. But the fact that it’s doing so suggests that even Apple can’t envision this scenario coming into existence.
Scenario 3: China tensions boil over
A war between the U.S. and China, where most of Apple’s products are assembled, would be disastrous for the company. The company has key suppliers throughout east Asia, and the entire supply chain would be disrupted.
Of course, such a confrontation would probably be disastrous for our entire planet, and the last time I checked, all of Apple’s competition is also on planet Earth. But still, if there’s one company that has built its power by relying on wide-open world markets, it’s Apple. That’s why war with China, or even a dramatic increase in diplomatic and economic tension, is probably the clearest and most present threat to Apple’s future.
The further we look out into the future, the risks of this scenario will probably lessen. Apple seems to have finally realized that it needs to diversify its supply and assembly businesses, or at the very least, it needs to try. But still, a war with China would be very bad for Apple–we may just not notice because we’ll be more concerned about every other terrible consequence of such an incident.
(As I said, it’s the dead of winter. I promise the rest of this column is happier! Keep reading.)
Scenario 4: The next big thing isn’t as big as the iPhone
It seems unlikely that any device is going to replace the smartphone, one of the most successful tech products in history, anytime soon. There’s nothing hovering on the horizon that suggests this category is going to fade away.
But in the fullness of time, of course, the smartphone will fade. It’s inevitable. And what’s the replacement going to be?
This is where Apple’s enormous pile of cash comes in handy. Apple keeps investing in product categories–the Apple Watch, AirPods, and the forthcoming AR/VR/XR headset–that might eventually replace the smartphone with a more subtle, wearable connection to the Internet.
All of Apple’s reported struggles in getting their first headset out the door make for fun reading, but the truth is that this is a very new product category. Companies like Apple and Meta will learn from their experimentation in this category. Apple is compiling patents and learning a lot about what’s required to build computing products you can wear on your face.
It’s a long game. The lessons Apple learned in the earliest days of the iPhone led them to a chip-design philosophy that ended up transforming the Mac. It just took more than a decade to do so. I don’t know when wearable glasses or contact lenses or drones that fly in front of your face and shine lasers onto your retinas will cross over into the public consciousness and make using a smartphone the equivalent of having a landline or watching American network television. It feels far out, though. More than a decade, probably.
And since Apple has identified it as the iPhone’s No. 1 threat, the company has invested heavily in it. It’s another one of those moves taken straight from Steve Jobs: if your product is going to be made obsolete, you should be the one who makes the replacement.
History is littered with companies that were so big, so successful as to be unstoppable–but ended up becoming irrelevant, switching to weird business models, selling themselves off for parts, or going bankrupt.
Nothing lasts forever, and it’s likely that eventually, some future Apple will be so mismanaged that it will slide into irrelevance. But the success of the iPhone and the inevitability of the smartphone as a popular product–plus some canny investments in whatever is next–suggest to me that Apple’s not going anywhere for a very long time.